By Will Johnson
HOUSTON COUNTY – To say last week was challenging, would be a gross understatement. The snow and ice made outside conditions treacherous, to say the very least.
Usually, inside accommodations during the winter are much more pleasant. The severity of the mid-February winter storms, however, made staying indoors nearly as challenging. The extreme amount of snow and ice caused an increased demand for energy which resulted in rolling blackouts initiated by Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
The weight of frozen precipitation on the trees caused a ridiculous number of limbs to break, taking down power lines throughout the area. With sub-freezing temperatures and a populace who was getting colder by the minute, the employees of the Houston County Electric Cooperative (HCEC) sprang into action, working around the clock to restore power to their customers.
At the height of the outages, there were approximately 7,500 HCEC members without electricity, but by Sunday afternoon, that number was down to zero.
On Monday afternoon, HCEC General Manager Kathi Calvert spoke about the recent outages, what her organization did to help restore power and what the cooperative is continuing to do to help its members.
Across the state, stories about exorbitant rates being charged for electricity are beginning to filter out to the public and when asked about this, Calvert said the HCEC was doing everything they could to keep their rates as low as possible.
“We do not know the full costs for the market prices of electricity. Natural gas prices were extremely high which drove up electricity costs. At this time, we are still working on those numbers,” she said.
“What we are doing at our cooperative, specifically,” Calvert continued, “we have a mechanism in our tariff (rate structure) which is a power cost recovery factor. That is what we pass on to the wholesale power cost. When the prices fluctuate, there is no margin, there is no markup, it just reflects the actual cost of power. We are holding ours flat. The rates that people are seeing this month, before this (winter storm) happened, will be the same rates people see next month. Our rates are not changing.”
She went on to say there would be a special Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, followed by a regular board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25 where these matters would be further discussed.
“We have suspended non-pay disconnects for people who cannot pay their bills right now because they’ve had water pipes which have broken and they have been out of work because of the weather. We are not applying any penalties for the next 45 days if you are behind on your electric bill. We are encouraging members to contact us if they know they need some help. We have deferred payment plans to spread out payments over a period of time. We also have average bill options which will help smooth out a member’s bill so the total bill will be more predictable,” Calvert explained.
She cautioned, however, people who reside in cities like Crockett, Grapeland, Lovelady and Palestine were in the competitive market of retail choice.
“It depends on who they selected to buy their energy from, what type of plans they have and what type of structure is in place. I’m in the city of Crockett and I select my own retail provider. I always get the lowest fixed rate I can for the longest term possible. With low (natural) gas prices from the (COVID-19) pandemic, electricity rates have been really low and people have been pushing market-based rates. People have been encouraged to get this rate which fluctuates with gas prices, you can save money because gas prices are so low right now. Those people who have variable type rate structures – I am truly concerned about them and how this will be handled. It will take regulatory action by the PUC and/or legislators to help shield consumers from the effects of this because the prices were astronomical,” Calvert said.
Furthermore, the GM said the HCEC board is understanding of both the physical side and the financial side of providing power to HCEC members.
“We have the liquidity and the financial position to finance this for our membership and spread this out over a long period of time. They (the board) haven’t taken action to do that yet, but I would expect – based on my initial conversations with the directors – that we will be doing our best to protect our members rates and maintain affordable bills,” Calvert said.
Concerning all the HCEC employees who went above and beyond the call of duty during Snowmageddon 2021, Calvert said she was in awe of their dedication.
“They sacrificed so much. Time away from family, time away from their homes when they were without power, when their pipes were busted and they didn’t have water or electricity. We had employees up here sleeping on the floor. We lost water up here, too. I am just so proud of how everyone stepped up and kept working. We always want it to be faster. I’m proud of our membership. We serve with a lot of humility. We try and do our best. We make mistakes, but we learn from them. We persevere and we are giving it our all to provide the best service possible,” Calvert said.
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com